A Q&A with Kathleen Marie Higgins, Author of “The Music Between Us”


978-0-226-33328-1-frontcoverFrom our first social bonding as infants to the funeral rites that mark our passing, music plays an important role in our lives, bringing us closer to one another. In “The Music between Us: Is Music a Universal Language?” (University of Chicago Press, June 2012) Kathleen Marie Higgins investigates this role, examining the features of human perception that enable music’s uncanny ability to provoke — despite its myriad forms across continents and throughout centuries — the sense of a shared human experience. Her interdisciplinary and richly researched study showcases the ways music is used in rituals, education, work, healing, as source of security and, perhaps most importantly, joy.

Higgins, who is a philosophy professor at The University of Texas at Austin, recently answered some of our questions here at ShelfLife@Texas about the transcendent power of music – and how it is one of the most fundamental bridges in human society.

What is your musical background, and how did you become interested in the philosophy of music?

I was a music major as an undergraduate, playing piano and organ. I was especially interested in the way music related to ideas and culture more broadly, and taking a course in the music of India led me to start reflecting on the differences among musical traditions. I did graduate work in philosophy, but among my philosophical interests from the beginning was philosophy of music.

What are some modern discussions being held by philosophers who study music?

One set of issues concerns the ontology of music — questions about what constitutes music, musical performances and musical works. Another focuses on why music affects us so powerfully. Philosophers of music consider such issues as whether or not emotional arousal and/or expression is the purpose of music or whether these are simply byproducts; the basis for the connection between music and emotion; whether music that expresses given emotions also arouses these same emotions; and what the object of the emotion is in the case of emotion generated through music.

Philosophers of music also discuss the ways that music relates to ethics. Can it make us a better or worse person, and if so how? What is involved in musical understanding? For example, how much attention to structure is essential? How music is like or unlike the other arts? How music is like or unlike language? What is the proper basis for evaluating and valuing music? How and why music functions politically? And what does music reveal about our minds and our world? I’m tempted to say that music offers an angle on just about any topic in philosophy.

In the book you mention the qin, a Chinese unfretted lute, which is so sensitive that ambient air currents can produce sounds and even the grain of the musician’s fingerprints on the strings can be heard. What other unique musical instruments or musical techniques have you encountered in your research about the universality of music?

Probably the most interesting I’ve come across is a practice in one New Guinea society of putting drone beetles in one’s mouth in order to use one’s own body as a resonator for the sounds of the beetles. Another New Guinea people, the Kaluli, perform duets with various natural sounds, such as those of waterfalls and cicadas. The ghatam, a South Indian instrument, is a clay pot. One of the things I notice when I encounter instruments and techniques such as these is the tendency to find musical possibilities in materials and phenomena in everyday life.

I’m often struck by the various timbres utilized in music, whether produced by instruments or the musical voice. The first time I heard a crumhorn, I found the character of the sound rather humorous, even though the crumhorn was not designed for that purpose. I also find highly nasal vocal styles a bit comical, but in some cultures they are standard and highly prized. My reactions in these two cases makes it clear to me how much the musical practices of our own society determine what we take to be the norm, and how sounds that aren’t utilized (or utilized much) in those practice can strike us as aberrant.

In my opinion, one of the most interesting chapters in your book is “What’s Involved in Sounding Human?” At the risk of being reductive, can you explain some of the research you included in the chapter to answer the question, “What is it to sound human?”

The question itself suggests that human beings employ only a subset of the available sonic possibilities in music, and this is certainly the case. Not surprisingly, we make music in the area where the human powers of hearing are most acute. The octave above a note is treated as the “same” note in most respects. Human beings prefer intervals of relatively simple ratios of frequency vibrations, and the simplest (the octave and the fifth, in particular) tend to be prominent in most musical systems around the world.

Human beings typically make music in “pieces.” We tend to use a centering tone (called the tonic in the West), which is perceived as the tone of a scale that is the most stable, and other tones have various degrees of relative instability by comparison. Music tends to employ lots of repetition within a piece and within smaller components of a piece. There is some tendency in most musical cultures for musical utterances to end with a descent in pitch. All these tendencies show up virtually everywhere that people make music. Human beings have a signature way of making music, just as songbirds and humpback whales do.

What do you find most fascinating about the connecting power of music?

What interests me most about all this is the fact that even though music from another culture might be formulated on very different principles than the music we are most familiar with, and even though it might sound exceedingly foreign, it is geared to our perceptual faculties and is structured of patterns that can be recognized quite readily if one is familiar with the musical idiom. This is not to say that it is easy to “get” foreign music right away; some of our perceptual habits may even interfere, as when we are expecting one kind of tuning or rhythmic organization and encounter another. But it does suggest, and some experimental evidence bears this out, that we can improve in gaining an orientation in foreign music in a relatively short time. So we shouldn’t conclude from the fact that it is challenging that an unfamiliar type of music is foreclosed to us. The popular claim that music can communicate across cultural boundaries may understate the challenges in some cases, but the basic idea is right.

Are there any non-musical societies that we know of? Or are there societies scholars consider decidedly less musical than others?

No, it appears that music plays a role in every human society, and that it serves a cluster of functions (creation of social cohesion, emotional regulation, indication of socially significant occasions and promoting health, for example) virtually everywhere.

What’s next for you and philosophy?

I’ve been working on issues in the philosophy of emotions, in particular on the nature of grief. I’m interested in how grief motivates and is expressed through art and other practices that have an aesthetic dimension. Music plays an important role in this connection; lamentation is one of those ubiquitous ways that we humans use music. So although this new project isn’t about music as such, music will be a part of it, and no doubt other projects I pursue in the future.

Two Faculty Authors Discuss their Works at Game Changers Double Header

game2Watch two distinguished liberal arts professors discuss their research at a Game Changers double header on Wednesday, March 28. The tapings are free and open to the public.

1 p.m. Wednesday, March 28
Paul Woodruff: Are You Ajax or Odysseus?

In his book “The Ajax Dilemma,” (Oxford University Press, Oct. 2011) Paul Woodruff, dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies and professor of philosophy, uses a parable from classical Greece to shed light on a very contemporary business dilemma: how to reward outstanding players without damaging the team.

Tapping into his experience as a boss, a professor, an officer and an employee, Woodruff uses his broad perspective to issue an intriguing call for a compassionate approach to fairness.

Meet a Game Changer: Paul Woodruff

Meet a Game Changer: Paul Woodruff

Woodruff is the Darrell K. Royal Professor in Ethics and American Society. He joined the university faculty in 1973 and has been chair of the Department of Philosophy and director of the Plan II Honors Program. He also served on the Task Force on Curricular Reform.

Specializing in ancient Greek philosophy, Woodruff has written a number of definitive translations of works by Plato, Sophocles and others. In addition, he has authored books that interpret classical philosophy for political, business or personal situations in contemporary lives. He won the 1986 Harry Ransom Teaching Award and was inducted into the Academy of Distinguished Teachers in 1997. He holds degrees from Princeton and Oxford.

6:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 28
Jeremi Suri: Can America Be Great Again?

After the Second World War, American society benefited from unprecedented peace and prosperity. What was key to this success? Americans were very strategic in their

Meet a Game Changer: Jeremi Suri

Meet a Game Changer: Jeremi Suri

deployment of historical wisdom, drawing upon the experiences, institutions and knowledge acquired in earlier decades to build our nation.

So far, Americans have not shown the same wisdom in the 21st century. Our society is suffering. The time has come for Americans to reawaken their historical wisdom, analyzing the recent past to identify the key ideas and institutions that will allow our society to thrive once more. Jeremi Suri, professor in the Department of History and LBJ School of Public Affairs, will examine our national history and will show how this history should empower citizens to reinvent American greatness again.

Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and professorships in history and public policy. He is the author of five books on contemporary politics and foreign policy including “Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama” ( Free Press, Sept. 2011). Suri’s research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America’s “Top Young Innovators” in the arts and sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media.

The talks are in Studio 6A at the KLRU studios. Sign up to attend one taping or both. Go to this website for more details.

Symposium Celebrates Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”

The Department of Philosophy will host the symposium “Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: Celebrating the Best Within Us,” from 4 to 6:30 p.m., March 4. Presenters will offer perspectives on the Russian-born philosopher’s magnum opus, both as philosophy and literature.

Each session will include a question-and-answer period, and a reception with the speakers will be held immediately afterward. The event is free and open to the public.

Speakers and topics include:

4 p.m. “Ayn Rand: Evidence of a Life” by Jeff Britting, associate producer of the Academy Award nominated-documentary film, “Ayn Rand: Evidence of a Life;”

4:15 p.m. “The Benevolent Universe Premise in Atlas Shrugged” by Allan Gotthelf, visiting professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Pittsburgh;

5 p.m. “John Galt as the Hero of Atlas Shrugged: Leader and Lover” by Shoshana Milgram, associate professor of English at Virginia Tech;

5:45 p.m. “The Appeal of Atlas Shrugged to Young People” by Onkar Ghate, senior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute.

A joint survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club found that “Atlas Shrugged” is the second most influential book for Americans today, after the Bible.

The symposium is sponsored by the BB&T Chair for the Study of Objectivism and Anthem Fellowship for the Study of Objectivism, both held by Professor Tara Smith. Smith is the author of “Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist” (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Learn more about the symposium.

Symposium Celebrates Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged"

The Department of Philosophy will host the symposium “Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: Celebrating the Best Within Us,” from 4 to 6:30 p.m., March 4. Presenters will offer perspectives on the Russian-born philosopher’s magnum opus, both as philosophy and literature.

Each session will include a question-and-answer period, and a reception with the speakers will be held immediately afterward. The event is free and open to the public.

Speakers and topics include:

4 p.m. “Ayn Rand: Evidence of a Life” by Jeff Britting, associate producer of the Academy Award nominated-documentary film, “Ayn Rand: Evidence of a Life;”

4:15 p.m. “The Benevolent Universe Premise in Atlas Shrugged” by Allan Gotthelf, visiting professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Pittsburgh;

5 p.m. “John Galt as the Hero of Atlas Shrugged: Leader and Lover” by Shoshana Milgram, associate professor of English at Virginia Tech;

5:45 p.m. “The Appeal of Atlas Shrugged to Young People” by Onkar Ghate, senior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute.

A joint survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club found that “Atlas Shrugged” is the second most influential book for Americans today, after the Bible.

The symposium is sponsored by the BB&T Chair for the Study of Objectivism and Anthem Fellowship for the Study of Objectivism, both held by Professor Tara Smith. Smith is the author of “Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist” (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Learn more about the symposium.

A Philosopher’s Treatise on Love

“My thesis is, in a nutshell, that love is in fact even more profound and basic to our being than most of our talk about it would suggest,” writes the late philosopher Robert Solomon in the preface to “About Love: Reinventing Romance For Our Times” (1988, 1994, 2006).

Solomon, the former Quincy Lee Centennial Professor of Business and Philosophy and a distinguished teaching professor, passed away in 2007 at the age of 64. But his ideas about life, love, relationships and sex, live on in his books.

“About Love” covers a comprehensive array of questions about the nature of love, including the idealization of love, the joys of sex, love at first sight, the meaning of fidelity and how to make love last.

According to Solomon, love remains such a mystery in part because those who have tried to explain love over the centuries have either sung its praises or reduced it from a grand emotion to a domestic science. He calls these theorists the “foggers” and the “facilitators,” and both have contributed to misunderstandings about love, according to the scholar.

“The Foggers tell us how wonderful love is but they don’t tell us what it is,” Solomon writes. “They often tell us how rare true love is, but they rarely tell us the truth about love—that love is in fact quite ordinary, less than cosmic, not the answer to all of life’s problems and sometimes calmitous.”

On the other hand, the facilitators have oversimplified the nature of love, Solomon argues.

“The Faciliators, by contrast, have turned love into a set of skills—negotiating, expressing your feelings…sharing the housework…” Solomon writes. “While the Foggers make love more mysterious, the Facilitators make thinking about love facile.”

The philosopher provides an antidote to both of these schools of thought in “About Love” by asking the age-old question “What is love?” and offering an answer that goes beyond mere physical attraction or everyday commodity.

Solomon favors a theory of love that dates back to Plato, which imagines love as a union of two souls. How do you define love?

A Philosopher's Treatise on Love

“My thesis is, in a nutshell, that love is in fact even more profound and basic to our being than most of our talk about it would suggest,” writes the late philosopher Robert Solomon in the preface to “About Love: Reinventing Romance For Our Times” (1988, 1994, 2006).

Solomon, the former Quincy Lee Centennial Professor of Business and Philosophy and a distinguished teaching professor, passed away in 2007 at the age of 64. But his ideas about life, love, relationships and sex, live on in his books.

“About Love” covers a comprehensive array of questions about the nature of love, including the idealization of love, the joys of sex, love at first sight, the meaning of fidelity and how to make love last.

According to Solomon, love remains such a mystery in part because those who have tried to explain love over the centuries have either sung its praises or reduced it from a grand emotion to a domestic science. He calls these theorists the “foggers” and the “facilitators,” and both have contributed to misunderstandings about love, according to the scholar.

“The Foggers tell us how wonderful love is but they don’t tell us what it is,” Solomon writes. “They often tell us how rare true love is, but they rarely tell us the truth about love—that love is in fact quite ordinary, less than cosmic, not the answer to all of life’s problems and sometimes calmitous.”

On the other hand, the facilitators have oversimplified the nature of love, Solomon argues.

“The Faciliators, by contrast, have turned love into a set of skills—negotiating, expressing your feelings…sharing the housework…” Solomon writes. “While the Foggers make love more mysterious, the Facilitators make thinking about love facile.”

The philosopher provides an antidote to both of these schools of thought in “About Love” by asking the age-old question “What is love?” and offering an answer that goes beyond mere physical attraction or everyday commodity.

Solomon favors a theory of love that dates back to Plato, which imagines love as a union of two souls. How do you define love?